Nine myths about livestock: One conclusion

The Journal of Animal Science this month features an invited review by ILRI and partners highlighting how livestock benefit the health and nutrition of poor people and dispelling some common, and dangerous, livestock myths.

Myths about livestock in developing countries abound. The authors of this invited review, ‘Role of livestock in human nutrition and health for poverty reduction in developing countries’, published in the Journal of Animal Science (JAS) (November 2007), and also featured in the JAS editorial, outline the links between livestock-keeping and the physical well-being of the poor and de-bunk a few commonly held misconceptions. The authors argue that these limit livestock development and the potential of livestock to reduce poverty. They conclude that the benefits of livestock on health and nutrition of poor people have largely been ignored even though they offer big opportunities for improving welfare and wellbeing.

Livestock contributions being hampered by myths
ILRI agricultural economist and lead author of the paper, Tom Randolph, says: ‘Livestock are well positioned to contribute to economic progress and social transformation as a strategic asset of the poor, but several misconceptions about livestock are misguiding policy and hampering development interventions. Too many opportunities are being lost due to misinformation and myths.

‘We have to take developing-country contexts into account and recognize the complex role livestock play in the livelihoods of the poor.
‘We argue that for poor people in low-income countries the nutritionally related health risks of animal-source foods are relatively small, as are the negative environmental impacts of livestock production, when compared to the much larger benefits of livestock-keeping to livelihoods and human well-being for poverty reduction.’

 Editorial: The role of livestock in developing countries
‘The purpose [of this invited review] was to highlight the importance of livestock in the global effort to alleviate poverty and promote human health, for those involved in livestock research, for policymakers, and those who are the beneficiaries of these efforts. We also wanted to provide a scholarly analysis of the facts as well as some of the misconceptions concerning the contribution of livestock to the health and economic progress of developing countries.

‘In fact, as Dr Randolph and colleagues observe in their review, “Animal-source foods are particularly appropriate for combating malnutrition and a range of nutritional deficiencies,” and, “livestock clearly offer the most efficient utilization of resources that would otherwise go unexploited. . .,” and thereby contribute to economic development as well. Thus, “livestock keeping” has been, and will continue to be, integral to improving the well-being of people in developing countries, both from a health and nutrition perspective and from a socioeconomic one. However, as pointed out by Randolph and co-authors, there is a critical need for objective, scientifically sound studies on the role of, and methods to promote, improved livestock production in developing countries.’

— MA Mirando, Symposia Editor and LP Reynolds, Editor-in-Chief. Editorial: The role of livestock in developing countries. Journal of Animal Science. American Society of Animal Science. Vol 85. No 11. November 2007.

Livestock keeping is critical and highly complex
This review summarizes how livestock help reduce poverty through better human nutrition and health; it also captures the complexity of the livelihood strategies used by the poor, the role of livestock and their links to human nutrition and health. The authors, from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Swiss Tropical Institute, Cornell University, National Institute of Public Health (Cuernavaca), University of Toronto, the International Potato Centre (CIP), University of California, and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), incorporate perspectives from multiple disciplines including animal science, economics, epidemiology and public health, to provide a comprehensive review.

 The role of livestock in livelihood strategies of the poor
Livestock keeping is critical for many of the poor in the developing world, serving many livelihood objectives and providing several pathways out of poverty. Livestock keeping also affects an indispensable asset of the poor –their own nutrition and health.

The many reasons poor people keep livestock — for food, income, manure, traction, status, and as bank accounts — mean that the role that animals play in household well-being is highly complex.

Myths about livestock in developing countries
A key objective of the invited review was to explore misconceptions hampering efforts to capitalize on the nutritional and health benefits that livestock can provide poor people who live largely on starchy diets.

Co-author, food safety specialist and veterinary scientist on joint appointment with ILRI and Cornell University Delia Grace says: ‘As we were undertaking this review, we realized that there were a number of common and dangerous myths about the role of livestock in developing countries that we needed to explore. 

‘From a public health perspective, we address both health determinants, for example poverty and inequality, and specific health risks, including animal-to-human transmitted diseases and food-borne diseases.

‘We have emphasized a “harm reduction” approach, which is more appropriate, as opposed to the unrealistic and unachievable goal of and “zero risk”.

Nine Myths About Livestock in Developing Countries
Myth 1: More livestock and eating more animal products are bad for poor countries.
Reality:  Animal products are uniquely suited to combat malnutrition and micronutrient deficiency in poor countries.

Myth 2: Livestock keepers are livestock eaters.
Reality: Most production is sold off-farm and the added income does not necessarily translate into significant improvements (or equitable improvements) in household nutrition.

Myth 3: Livestock keeping is an inefficient strategy for feeding the poor.
Reality: There is negligible competition between livestock and people for food resources given use by poor farmers of marginal lands and crops for livestock feed.

Myth 4: The state alone is the best manager of zoonoses and food-borne diseases.
Reality: Alternative systems involving the private sector and communities can deliver sustainable and affordable disease control measures.

Myth 5: Medical and veterinary disciplines operate best independently in controlling zoonotic diseases.
Reality: The divided responsibility for zoonoses control leads to under-estimating its importance and the benefits from its control.

Myth 6: We know which zoonoses matter to the poor.
Reality: With a dearth of information on the priority of different diseases, resources are being allocated irrationally.

Myth 7: Quantity, not quality, of food is what matters to poor countries.
Reality: Biological contamination causes 2 billion illnesses annually and food safety scares hit consumers and producers hard even in the poorest countries.

Myth 8: Food safety standards are blocking poor farmers from the big market opportunities.
Reality: The poorest don’t sell or buy in supermarkets and have little prospect of entering international trade.

Myth 9: Food safety systems should aim for zero risk to the public.
Reality: Zero risk is both impossible and unaffordable and the appropriate level of risk in poor countries is not necessarily the same as that for rich countries.

Download Brief: Nine Myths About Livestock in Developing Countries

Co-author and epidemiologist with ILRI and the Swiss Tropical Institute Esther Schelling concludes:
‘Dismantling the myths raises awareness that conventional services and traditional approaches usually only reach some parts of the population. They tend to miss remote communities or vulnerable groups such as women and children.

‘More equitable solutions can be devised by thinking outside the box. There are already some examples of promising new approaches. We now need to examine them for their potential to be scaled up in sustainable ways.

For more information contact:

Tom RandolphTom Randolph
Agricultural Economist, International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)
Nairobi, Kenya
Telephone: +254 (20) 422 3067


Delia Grace
Veterinary Epidemiologist, International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)
Nairobi, Kenya

Telephone: +254 (20) 422 3070


Esther Schelling
Veterinary Epidemiologist, International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)
Nairobi, Kenya

Telephone: +254 (20) 422 3069

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